Al-Qaeda and allied fighters in Iraq vowed to resist government forces trying to retake towns Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says are under the terrorist group’s sway.
“They’ll only enter Fallujah over our dead bodies,” Khamis al-Issawi, who said he’s part of a 150-strong brigade in the city 40 miles (64 kilometers) west of Baghdad, said in a phone interview. “We are ready and prepared to fight Maliki forces if they decide to begin their offensive on the city.”
Fighting in Fallujah and the surrounding Anbar province over the past few days is part of an escalating wave of sectarian violence in Iraq, where Maliki’s Shiite Muslim-led government is confronting Sunni Muslim militants. Some are affiliated with the al-Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which has gained prominence through its role fighting President Bashar al-Assad in neighboring Syria.
Sectarian tensions throughout the region have been inflamed by the Syrian war. Saudi Arabia, the main Sunni Muslim power in the Gulf, is supporting rebels fighting Assad, including some Islamist groups. Shiite-ruled Iran, an ally of Maliki’s government, is also the Syrian leader’s chief backer.
Iraqi officials say at least 40 people have been killed in the fighting in Fallujah. Last year, civilian deaths in Iraq, at 7,818, were at their highest since 2008, when the sectarian war that followed the U.S. invasion five years earlier was still raging. The U.S. military led two offensives against insurgents in Fallujah, which was also a focus of the 2007 troop surge that paved the way for its pullout two years ago.
With the rise of militant Sunni groups changing regional balances, both the U.S. and Iran have offered to help Maliki’s government fight the Anbar rebels. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden phoned Maliki and Iraqi Council of Representatives Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi to discuss the conflict in Iraq.
Al-Issawi said most of the region’s tribes are fighting in his brigade, without saying whether it had any connections with al-Qaeda. Government officials say Sunni tribesmen are also fighting on the army’s side.
In a bid to win support, Iraq’s cabinet said families of tribesmen who die fighting “terrorists” will receive government benefits, while those injured in combat will receive free medical treatment, Iraqiya Television reported today.
In Garma, Sheikh Rafei Mishen al-Jumaily, head of the Jumelat tribe, one of the biggest in Anbar, said thousands of his fighters evicted the military from the town after fierce fighting.
‘Humiliating the People’
“The Iraqi army began entering the cities and humiliating the people instead of protecting them,” he said in a phone interview. “The government is accusing us of terrorism to justify the war against us -- that’s why we decided to defend our people.” He said his fighters have captured about 100 government soldiers.
Both al-Issawi and al-Jumaily said they were fighting against Iranian influence over Iraq.
The street battles in Anbar add to the turmoil caused by the daily car bombs that have complicated Maliki’s struggle to assert control over the oil-rich country following the withdrawal of U.S. troops. The premier also faces political unrest, with 44 members of parliament resigning last week because the government used force to dismantle Sunni-led protests in Anbar.